Disappearing Arctic Ice

It looks as if 2012 will set a new record low for Arctic ice extent[1]. As a measure of the impact of global warming, this is depressingly clear-cut. There’s no need to go into arguments about trends and variability, or use any kind of modelling – the ice is melting visibly.

Arctic Sea ice extent

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

fn1. Satellite data on ice extent goes back to 1979. There are other measures, arguably more relevant, such as estimates of ice volume, for which the data set is shorter. They tell an even gloomier stories.

83 thoughts on “Disappearing Arctic Ice

  1. It needs to remembered that Rudd was elected on the tail end of an El Nino period back in 2007. Everybody was sold on AGW at the time whereas the subsequent La Nina may have been interpreted as long overdue rain on a sunburnt land. Now BoM tell us we will head into another but milder dry period. Depending on the timing that could make Abbott’s ‘climate change is crap’ message harder to sell. At least the gold plated grid will happily power all those ACs.

  2. CSIRo report this morning on the impact of climate change on the oceans and migration of tropical fish species further south highlights the reality of what is happening.

  3. If you look at the sequence of graphs in the ice extent figure in conjunction with the BOM Southern Oscillation Index Graph Archive (which goes back 60 years), the set describes a “bump” of cooling from 2007 that correlates quite well with the extreme la Nina set that we have just experienced. With that in mind, then from 2011 we could well be seeing a set of progressively more extreme ice extent years. The question then becomes “how long the El Nino’s run be”. I’m inclined to expect that it will be a short one with a small La Nina bump or a longer period with a few La Nina bumps along the way. But it is highly likely that the character of the El Nino will be very different to those of the past.

    One thing is certain, all eyes will be on the Arctic Seas and tundras through this next warming period to see how rapidly the permafrost thaw will progress.

  4. Greenland is busy setting records too. Ice reflect solar radiation back out into space. Less ice means more absorbed and the heating accelerates.
    Aren’t we lucky to live in the age of the unacredited denier climate scientist?

  5. So, why are Australia the US and other countries now apparently resolved to dig up coal even faster than before with technology of a scale which dwarfs even the massive coal mining machinery used thus far?

    From 1939-1945, when the world faced peril at the hands of German Nazism and brutal Japanese colonialism, our parents and grandparents were able to find the resolve to meet that threat. Why should we be any less resolved today with the even greater threat of global warming? We should demand of our federal and state mis-rulers that the scale of coal mining be immediately scaled back to, at most, what it was a generation ago, before the expansion of recent years commenced and to hell with those who have invested their money in destroying the prospects of future generations.

  6. It is because of the twist, Mal.

    The war threatened people’s security, which they were prepared to fight to preserve.

    Global warming threatens to do the same. The twist is that acting to prevent Global Warming “threatens” peoples security far sooner, or at least that is what those with the most “wealth” to lose want us to believe, and these people are prepared to use every deception to get their way. And in this is the problem….”every deception”.

    It is a sad fact that in today’s business world there is the perception that dishonesty is entirely acceptable, even necessary. Sadly this lack of morality has merged through into conservative politics so now blatant dishonesty is perfectly acceptable, as long as the goal is achieved. And if it is not then there was not enough deception used. And the extreme perversion is that many of these people will call themselves “Christians”, praise the Lord.

    Hence the arch liar himself, Tony Abbott, accuses everyone else of dishonesty where there is none. That is the best lie of all. Having gone that far to preserve ones wealth at the expense of others the platform of deceit, well practiced in the defense of tobacco’s big lie, to deny first that the climate is changing, then that the cost of action is too expensive, then that nobody else is doing it, to now that it will have no effect, is a perfectly natural path for Conservatives and Libertarians to traverse in their twisted thinking.

    That is the twist.

  7. Conservatives and libertarians have also painted themselves into a corner. Given the denialism admitting that they have been completely wrong is something their not insubstantial egos could handle.

  8. I seem to recall a Tele cartoon many years ago about Sir Joh’s form of denialism (usually about brown paper bags and their contents). Sir Joh was depicted painting himself into a corner. Then he painted a door on the wall, opened it and walked out. I suspect the modern day climate change denialist will do the same thing; paint an escape door and walk out. However, in true “cartoon character of choice” fashion he will walk out into thin air, do the anti-gravity shuffle and plummet down, down, down to a big, hot desert floor. The desert floor will have a nice fluffy cushion of bulldust (the residue of many years of climate change denial) and our climate change denier, will pop up dusty but beaming and still alive. Then, as the dust clears he see a circle of hot, thirsty, angry people closing in…

  9. I’ve been following the progress of the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012. There is an account of it if you scroll down the NSIDC link in John’s post. At the Arctic Sea Ice Blog in this post there is a spectacular animation showing the effect of the cyclone. Normally a low should spread the ice. The NSIDC account suggests that warmer winds brought in from the south could have melted out ice that was due to go anyway.

    It is noteworthy that the dark red area signifying 100% sea ice cover reduced markedly during the storm. Rob Dekker’s comment quoted in the ASI Blog post suggests that stirring penetrated to the lower halocline at a 200-500 meter depth. The effect was to bring up warmer water which is also saltier, reducing the melting point by about 0.5C.

    But the big melt was on before the storm. This comment by blogger Neven points out that the weather conditions were actually not similar to those of 2007 and less conducive to melting, which makes the 2012 pattern more remarkable. Apparently a high pressure system is now due, which should compact the remaining ice and transport some of it out through the Fram Strait, reducing the coverage further.

  10. Another point to note is that the graph in the post is of sea ice extent not area. The former includes the holes in the Swiss cheese, as it were. This graph from Cryosphere Today shows Northern Hemisphere sea ice area at near record lows.

    According to this post the Bremen Uni sea ice extent record low has already fallen.

  11. The way Australia and now the US are completely unashamed of increasing coal exports is like a meth dealer teaching Sunday School. I find it creepy and somewhat disgusting. Surely all these countries buying coal made emissions cut pledges at various climate conferences. Like a weight loss counsellor we should help them out with smaller portion sizes. It seems India for example will be quite dependent on Australian coal. Clive and Gina want to build new Qld coal ports so the Reef gets a double hit from both warming/acidification and physical damage from ships.

    I wonder though if the best coal is getting harder to find. The ABC ran a story on the prospect of a Hunter Valley horse stud farm being undercut by a nearby coal mine. A famous Melbourne Cup winning mare (MD) was at the stud so it seems nothing is sacred. If we rationed coal to domestic and foreign customers it might be difficult for them to find alternative suppliers. Note Indonesia is cutting gas exports to conserve the resource so coal may be next.

    If carbon tax has failed to impress by this time next year we’ll have to think of something new. I think we should put our coal customers on a ‘must try harder’ list and in league with the EU, California etc consider carbon tariffs on finished goods from countries that are not making the effort.

  12. Another feature of coal over consumption is that Carbon is an every increasingly important building material, and I’m not referring to timber houses or furniture. Carbonaceous resins of many types are an essential constructional material of every aspect of our technological civilization. Nature took hundreds of millions of years to put the Carbon from the atmosphere and put it into easily accessible piles. We are content dig it up and burn it at great speed.

    Carbon is destined to be a scarce commodity for humanity in just one hundred years from now as it will become ever more difficult to find in the convenient form of coal and oil. And the idea that we can just get it back out of the atmosphere is completely false. For starters you need the five times the energy that we used by burning it to get it back, and secondly nature does not leave the CO2 in the atmosphere for ever, nature absorbs it into the oceans, land and biosphere in a broadly distributed form.

  13. There seems to be the same brand of denialism afoot denying that we are rapidly entering a world where China is number one. Rather than denialism, the reality needs to be quickly embraced, and the west needs to make sure that our legacy is even handedness, that is, a legacy of how we would like to be treated. Instead the west is setting some awful precidents that we will regret.
    Like climate change, the rise of China is not simply a problem for our grandchildren.

  14. It is very troubling. I note this:

    This year, Greenland experienced extreme melting in nearly every region — the west, northwest and northeast of the continent — but especially at high elevations. In most years, the ice and snow at high elevations in southern Greenland melt for a few days at most. This year it has already gone on for two months.

    “We have to be careful because we are only talking about a couple of years and the history of Greenland happened over millennia,” cautioned Professor Tedesco. “But as far as we know now, the warming that we see in the Artic is responsible for triggering processes that enhance melting and for the feedback mechanisms that keep it going. Looking over the past few years, the exception has become part of the norm.” {my emphasis, FB}

    In keeping with their policy of reporting the facts on climate change in a frank and fair manner, The Australian has a total of zero coverage on this matter this week.

  15. Given Greenland holds almost seven meters of potential sea level rise, maybe it merited a mention?

  16. Media Matters notes that this under reportage is not peculiar to Australia:

    Despite the implications of Tedesco’s new findings for our changing climate and our communities, not one of the major broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC), cable (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) or print (Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal) outlets have covered the report.

    I also cannot find any reference online in the Australian media to this matter later than July 24, 2012. The Brisbane Times is however, carrying a story about ice and Greenland dated later than that though …

    Dates August 8, it refers to a story from two weeks earlier reporting that “while scientists ponder “the possible (!!!) melting of the Greenland ice sheet” some Aussie woman photographing a calving glacier narrowly avoided the ensuing “iceberg tsunami”. The exception that proves the rule applies.

  17. For a more disturbing graph showing the asssociated global cause of ice melt the following may be of interest.


    This should clearly refute claims about the Earth cooling in recent years, at least visually.
    Note that of the Earth’s total heat content anomaly the oceans contain the overwhelming proportion at about 95% whilst the atmosphere and land total heat content anonaly is about 5% of the total heat content anomaly. Therefore making claims about temperature rise or fall based on solely the, more variable, atmosphere, or polar ice as it were, is inaccurate or misleading as compared to more accurate combined ocean, land and atmosphere total heat content anomaly.

    It’s interesting how global warming is often covered in the corporate media. On one hand we have 97% of climate scientists and on the other the meritless denialists in their various forms and this is supposed to represent balance as if these two sides were somehow intellectually or ethically equivalent. However, there is a third significant group that also rejects the mainstream scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming and they are not often heard from in the media. This side is comprised of the majority of climate scientists who believe that the mainstream scientific consensus of the IPCC is too conservative and that changes will be faster and more severe. Their absence tells us something about the nature of mainstream media and their coverage of economics, politics or society generally, and I believe it is this. Lofty sounding journalistic values such as Balance or Impartiality are fraudulent and cover for introducing establishment views. In the case of global warming, establishment or status quo views have almost no merit scientifically however they are given coverage. If the policy of balance were genuine the denialists would be given almost no coverage whilst the balance would be between fast and slow warming positions. Therefore balance is a Trojan concept, designed to ensure that establishment views are always included regardless of their legitimacy.

  18. Indeed, an excellent video.

    Fran, there has been some spectacular melting in Greenland this summer, including a four day period in July when melting reached 97% of the ice sheet for four days. Overall, though, a lot of the surface melt refreezes before it goes into the sea. Greenland ice loss is still small compared to thermal expansion in its effect on sea level rise.

    Back in 2008 a study by Pfeffer et al found that the saucer-like underlying land topography of Greenland limited large-scale rapid ice loss. They found that 2m by 2100 was probably the upper limit from all sources, but thought that 80cm was more likely. A recent detailed study of (from memory) over 200 glaciers along the NW of Greenland found that ice loss during the last decade indicated that the lower figure in the Pfeffer study was the more likely.

    A limitation of the recent study is that it’s difficult to extrapolate from such a short time period. A limitation of the Pfeffer study was that IMO it did not pay due regard to what might happen in Antarctica.

    Nevertheless Hansen’s notion of a 5m SLR by 2100 requires from memory an exponential doubling of ice loss from Greenland every 10 years. So I think the consensus is still for a midpoint SLR of around 1.2m by 2100, which is bad enough. Recent work done at Potsdam (Schaeffer et al) “would see sea level reaching 2.7?m above 2000 and still rising at about double the present-day rate.”

    I haven’t included links because 2 comments I made last night with 2 links each are stuck in moderation.

  19. I should make clear that the Schaeffer et al work which “would see sea level reaching 2.7?m above 2000 and still rising at about double the present-day rate” was looking at SLR by 2300.

    A 1.5?°C scenario could peak sea level at a median estimate of 1.5?m above 2000 by 2300. Without doubt it’s not going to be pretty. Also that study used “a semi-empirical model, calibrated with sea-level data of the past millennium” which didn’t fully take account of the prospect of non-linear ice sheet collapse.

  20. Newer studies might be modifying Pfeffer’s results;


    If Hansen is predicting a “5m SLR by 2100”, I for one would not discount his opinion. It sounds like an upper bound which would take catastrophic, runaway processes to generate it. However, I don’t think we can now discount catastrophic, runaway processes getting underway this century.

    Of course, ice and sea level changes of this magnitude also imply extraordinary weather system changes over the course of this century. Get ready for a wild ride. Something that occurs to me is that ever larger solar and wind power arrays and installations may begin to suffer extreme, widespread and continuing damage from extreme weather events. Just at the juncture where we need to build and maintain these large arrays on an industrial, civilizational scale, we may find our weather systems become so inimical that it significantly erodes our capability in this regard. The impact on agriculture might be extreme too.

  21. @Brian

    As a non-scientist, I’m not taking a firm position on likely SLR by 2100 and as you say even the consensus estimate of around 1.2m is bad enough. Nevertheless, the behaviour of the ice sheet in Greenland does underline the scale of the warming — canary in the coal mine-style.

    Those interested in this could be interested in reading SKS’s article on Glacial Isostatic Adjustment — Sea Level Isn’t Level: This Elastic Earth It contains an interesting animation illustrating the concept.

    My broader point is that the mainstream media continues to be asleep at the wheel on this matter.

  22. Sea level rise by 2100 – as I understand it the differences between high and low emissions scenarios aren’t much different. Yet with low emissions it would be levelling off whereas with high emissions there’ll be continuing sea level rise. There are people living who will live past 2100 – we need to be looking further than that and failure to do so tends to understate the full extent of what we are doing to our world.

  23. @Ken Fabian

    I’m yet to read any serious source that suggests SLR peaks at 2100 absent serious human intervention. Most suggest the planet will see 300 years or so of SLR.

  24. Fran, I think the implied sea level commitment for 400ppm is about +25M, plus or minus 5, given a millennium or three to work it’s way through. The only sane approach is to reduce emissions to net zero and aim for 350ppm ASAP and hope for the best. Hansen has a paper showing that 2C is too dangerous, which quite a few scientists have known for some time.

  25. Its good to see some healthy discussion going on re GW, again.

    I have a business neighbor, very much Coalition, running for council here in Penrith. Talking with him, when the cc words came up he said “all of that talk will be fading out soon, it’s a non issue”.

    There is the “wisdom” of the Coalition. They expect to take the reigns of government, dispose of the Carbon Price, install their pacifier soil carbon hand out to farmers scheme and Climate Change will fade into history as they put coal extraction into overdrive to “pay out the debt of Labour”.

    The question should then be that, given the weight of scientific evidence for Global Warming and also with mounting evidence of the economic cost, should such a policy set be seen as a criminal act?

  26. @Brian

    The only sane approach is to reduce emissions to net zero and aim for 350ppm ASAP

    I think we need to be a little more ambitious and proactive than that. We need to be aiming to

    a) get down to about 280ppmv by 2050. We can’t realistically do that with just fossil HC abatement/replacement. We would need to be drawing down CO2 into stable sinks and permanently sequestering it.

    b) In the interim, I now favour a modest plan of active geo-engineering — one aimed at increasing albedo at the boundary between the stratosphere and stoposphere powerful enough to reduce insolation at the surface to what it would have been if we had had an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of about 280ppmv — a kind of global dimming program. If we can prevent those 8 Hiroshima bombs per minute of extra heat we are accumulating and save the snowpack, the permafrost and other glacial masses from further decomposing we can perhaps hold a line on SLR and foreclose the worst effects of climate change while we get our collective acts together. As we make progress, we can scale back the size of the program. If we can get to 280, we can eliminate it altogether.

  27. That is a bit of a far hope there, Fran. We are already in overshoot on a 280ppm target. The entire world would need to be enacting full on sustainable energy consumption right now for the hope of a rollback to a real possibility. So far the only Global players who have achieved any really significant renewable energy production are Brazil (Ethanol and BioMass electricity), China (rooftop solar water heating), and Europe Wind, Solar, and Nuclear. Everyone else is just sitting around flicking the catalogue pages.

    But, yes, we do need to live and work positively.

  28. Geo-engineering may be are only hope at this late stage. But that entails great risks and even in the best case will likely destroy some countries’ climate which could lead to conflicts.

    Scientists often tend to be cautious in their claims. Climate scientists claims about the climate changing adversely have proven correct as the adverse changes continue to be worse than projections. The satisfaction of being right on AGW is hollow. With the distraction of first the “war on terror” and then the GFC we may hit 2° before any serious action starts.

  29. @Malthusista
    Malthusista, you wrote, “From 1939-1945, when the world faced peril at the hands of German Nazism and brutal Japanese colonialism, our parents and grandparents were able to find the resolve to meet that threat. Why should we be any less resolved today with the even greater threat of global warming?”

    I think BilB gave a good answer, but to put it more succinctly, the reasons were that the elite defined the enemy during the war and it also suited them for domestic consumption to fall. So it would have been difficult for people not to have dropped their consumption. This time the elites don’t agree on the enemy and they want consumption to rise. So it rises. And the corporate media skirt around the issue.

  30. To be accurate, there was no great rush to meet the threat. Although Britannica and France declared war they did very little until the Germans invaded France. Similarly the Soviet Union waited until they were invaded, and the US until Japan attacked and the Germans declared war on them. That reluctance can be understood given the gusto with which they had entered the war to end all wars.

  31. Ikonoklast @ 23, your link won’t work for me, but by googling the article seems to come from 2006, 2 years earlier than Pfeffer et al. The latter looked at the “gateways” through which glaciers deliver to the sea and the increase required in glacier speed to achieve Greenland’s share. The IPCC AR4 report tells us that Greenland melting contributed 0.21mm pa from 1993 to 2003. That would give you only 2.1cm for a century. Pfeffer et al thought 16.5 cm as Greenland’s share of 80cm as plausible, but 53.8cm as it’s share of 2m was thought to be unlikely.

    Antarctica is probably the one to watch. Here Pfeffer et al saw Antarctica’s share having to be about 62cm in the 2m scenario, the single biggest source. They did assume that the vast Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice sheets would last the century. There is some evidence that they can decay quite rapidly, and there has been recent concern that the latter is being undermined by warmer ocean currents. If they go they will unplug a lot of glacier flow from both East and west Antarctica.

    Thermal expansion is seen at 30cm in both Pfeffer scenarios, which is probably underestimated. Moreover there is about half a metre in glaciers and ice caps other than the ice sheets, so I think 1 to 1.2 metres is quite plausible.

    Hansen is not definite about 5m, but points to “Meltwater Pulse 1A” about 14,000 years ago, when sea levels rose a metre every 20 years for 400 years. He thinks multi-metre SLR by 2100 as highly likely. There was a lot more ice around then to melt, but we are pushing the system far harder.

    I think things are going to look increasingly dramatic over the next decade or two, but the real surge in SLR may not come until about 2080. We are pushing the system far harder than it was pushed in the PETM event 55mya (probably more than 10 times harder) when the temperature rose 6C so we are in uncharted territory.

  32. Fran @ 30, Hansen thinks that the albedo of the planet’s surface is greater now than it was in 1850 so we really don’t know what would be required to put the climate systems roughly back where we found them. He thinks 350ppm is the minimum required for ice-sheet stability and by the time we get there we’ll have a better idea of what’s required.

    We’ll definitely have to do geo-engineering. there was a recent successful iron ocean seeding experiment, but I don’t seem to have bookmarked it.

    BTW my earlier posts are now liberated @ 9 and 10. I linked to the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 and pointed out the difference between sea ice ‘extent’ and ‘area’. I gather that cyclones were extremely rare in the Arctic summer before 2006 (they do occur outside the tropics) but are now not uncommon. The recent one was a whopper.

  33. A couple of posts have mentioned the possibility of geo-engineering. I would not agree with “positive geo-engineering” in any fashion. The dangers of unforeseen consequences, to the climate, to all biosphere cycles and to all ecology are grave in my (lay) opinion. However, I would agree with “negative geo-engineering”. Let me give my definitions in relation to climate forcing.

    1. Positive geo-engineering is the deliberate adding of a new man-made forcing component to the complex of the current climate system and all natural and man-made forcing factors. This new forcing component presumably would be working against warming forcing.

    2. Negative geo-engineering is the deliberate removal or amelioration of an identified man-made forcing element (like CO2 emissions).

    There is a big difference to these approaches logically and scientifically. Negative geo-engineering is an attempt to retreat “elegantly and minimally” to the biospheric and ecological status quo ante. It is an attempt to allow systems that worked in a self-regulating way to return to that self-regulating state. Positive geo-engineering continues the scientific, technological and civilizational project in a hubristic, interventionist fashion. It does not show sufficient scientific respect for the complexity of biospheric and ecological systems and the incompleteness of our knowledge in the face of such complex systems.

    The medical analogy of treating a patient (particularly with a pharmacopoeia of drugs) can be invoked here. The first principle is Primum non nocere which means “first, do no harm”. This principle “reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do. It is invoked when debating the use of an intervention that carries an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.” – Wikipedia.

    We have unbalanced or “poisoned” the complex biospheric system with too much CO2. Pouring one “physic” after another down mother nature’s throat (like mass iron oxide into the ocean) does indeed carry the obvious risk of further harm and a less certain chance of benefit.

  34. @Ikonoclast

    I would not agree with “positive geo-engineering” in any fashion. The dangers of unforeseen consequences, to the climate, to all biosphere cycles and to all ecology are grave in my (lay) opinion.

    While I certainly share Ikonoclast’s concerns (and the dichotomy he draws) we are wrestling with the reality that we have already “positively” geoengineered the planet to warm and the feedbacks we have set in motion meen that even very substantial drawdown of CO2 will come too late to reverse the perturbation caused by all of the unwitting(?) geoengineering already done. We are facing perhaps at a minimum hundreds of years of the consequences of 1880-? We have tropical fish in Tasmania, FPS. Who knows what will occur if we don’t abate the decomposition of the Arctic permafrost. We are not stopping that preventing polar region albedo loss without positive geoengineering — that much is certain.

    Some risks are warranted. High level release of So2 will probably not cause acid rain in the way that the mid-century releases did and would be one of the things worth trying, IMO. Certainly, Caldeira thinks it worth a look.

  35. The record low for NSIDC arctic sea ice extent was 4.17 million sq km in 2007. Last year the value was 4.33. From 19th August 2011 to the minimum for that year, the ice declined by about 967,000 sq kms. If that is repeated this year the minimum will be less than 3.6 million sq kms. It probably won’t decline that far, but it is certainly a frightening prospect.

    Here is a link to another interesting graph: the arctic death spiral (IJIS): http://www.iwantsomeproof.com/extimg/sia_6.png

  36. You really are a glass half full lot aren’t you – just think how much easier it will be to tow in those drilling platforms if there is no ice :-^

    Brian wrote:

    there was a recent successful iron ocean seeding experiment, but I don’t seem to have bookmarked it.

    And indeed, on paper it looks great:

    To sequester 100% of the worlds annual CO2 output you need to pulverise about 37 million tons of iron to a diameter of no greater than 1/1000 of a millimetre and spread it out evenly (guessing here, say 100 square metres per ton) over about 4000 square kilometres.

    In exactly the right temperature and weather conditions.
    Every year.

    Just the raw iron will cost about $4 billion (it’s about 12% of WA production). It doesn’t always bloom and it doesn’t always sink (important for sequestration). We don’t know what the long term effect on ocean chemistry or biology will be.

    For me, geo-engineering is like telling a Type 2 diabetic “hey, stay on the couch and eat junk food, the prosthetics these days are really great…”

  37. CO2 disincentive schemes are not working. This week Germany opened a huge new 2.2 GW brown coal fired power station. The plant is brand spanking new but uses the same fuel as the Dickens era. To quote the 1960s smoking ads ‘we’ve come a long way baby’.

  38. Also this week Climate Commissioner Flannery opined that the world is about to enter a breathtaking era of greenness. Unfortunately the recent data says otherwise with manmade CO2 increasing from about 31 billion tonnes in 2010 to 34 billion in 2011.

  39. @Fran Barlow
    Fran, I had in mind this graph by Aslak Grinsted – http://www.glaciology.net/_/rsrc/1318931654178/Home/PDFs/Announcements/sealevelprojectionstoad2500withthercpscenarios/PRfig-EN2.png?height=241&width=320 – showing projected sea level rise to 2500AD. Of course there is next to zero possibility of emissions being stabilised within 10 years – leading to levelling off of sea level rise between 2100 – 2200AD – and this may not be typical of estimates. But my real point is, with respect to sea levels, that a focus on 2100AD, as if beyond then doesn’t matter is seriously wrong.

  40. Against that, Hermit, the US has just recorded a 20-year low and, despite the bad news you mention from Germany, the EU is meeting its reduction targets so easily there is now pressure to tighten them unilaterally.


    The big problem is of course China, but even here there is some hope. China has cut planned coal output

    while substantially increasing renewables target

  41. Pr Q this has been discussed before but the main reason for US emissions reductions has been the gas glut from fracking. That worked out nicely coupled with other factors such as EPA mercury rules and diverting coal to China. However many analysts think the US fracking miracle will be lucky to last a decade. Search Energy Bulletin for articles. Thanks to fracking in parts of the US gas is priced under $2 per GJ. An article in today’s Climate Spectator countenances Australian gas heading towards $16 per GJ.

    That is precisely the German scenario which I think is being writ small in South Australia. Intermittent sources such as wind and solar need flexible backup the best of which is hydro if you’ve got it. Gas will become too expensive for the backup role. Some think a massive overbuild of wind will solve that problem then you have capex, NIMBYism and system stability problems. I reckon nukes (for baseload at least) will prove reliable and are more than safe enough.

  42. As you say, fracking may not last but, assuming Obama gets back in the EPA mercury and CO2 rules are there to stay, and that implies no more coal in the US.

    As regards intermittency and “baseload” demand, we’ve done this to death. There is no such thing as baseload demand.

  43. @John Quiggin

    There is no such thing as baseload demand.

    Wellthere is, but as we’ve noted, it doesn’t mean what/have the importance that those who make such a fuss about it think mean/has.

    It’s a purely descriptive account of typical minimum loads (and by inference) what ought to be despatchable at that time if nothing in the environment of the system changes. It absolutely doesn’t say anything about what supply should be available if there is a sudden surge in demand or fall in the supply.

  44. Sure, I was exaggerating a bit. To be more precise,
    * the minimum demand currently observed is boosted by off-peak pricing.
    * The minimum demand under uniform pricing would be far below even the most optimistic evidence of how low we can reduce fossil electricity in the next couple of decades
    * If we adjust prices to match the balance in a renewables based system, baseload demand will be even less relevant.

    The big issue is that, whereas the main problem in the current system is to set prices to get rid of excess power in the late night and early morning, a solar-based system will require a peak price in early evening, and a minimum price in mid-afternoon. That will create the price incentives necessary for storage and load-shifting.

  45. @John Quiggin “the US has just recorded a 20-year low and, despite the bad news you mention from Germany, the EU is meeting its reduction targets so easily there is now pressure to tighten them unilaterally.”

    Positive developments, but not as much as is needed. Fran pointed what needs to be done: negative emissions, not just lower emissions.

    And the reported changes are not what they seem. The US’s reduction is due to a confluence of factors some of which have only one-time effects, such as the cut-in of the long-scheduled mercury emission regulations which closed many summertime peaking coal plants. And it is to be hoped that employment and the median real wage in the US pick up soon.

    Of the ongoing trends, demographics (the retirement of the large bulge in the population pyramid popularly called the Baby Boomers) will provide a tail wind for about 15 years, and then the wind will swing around.

    Europe has the demographic tail wind, and it is importing biofuels (so it doesn’t have to account for the emissions involved in producing them). (But Europe has acted, too. Full credit to the Germans and Italians for getting the PV industry to the point that it is – we owe them thanks for that. We owe the Danes thanks for starting the wind industry, too.)

    But let’s wait till 2014 to see what is happening in Europe. It defies logic that the substitution of nuclear power with coal power in Germany can have no effect on Europe’s emissions trend (after accounting for recessions, etc.).

    There has been some increase in carbon efficiency in the OECD, but less than it seems, once these factors are accounted for.

    And saying “look, we’ve cut back, aren’t we good” (implied: time for a breather) doesn’t cut it. Reducing your daily calorie surplus from 3000 to 2850 kcal won’t make the type 2 diabetes go away. Reducing OECD emissions 5% won’t noticeably affect the global carbon emissions trajectory. Nor will quadrupling renewables in China, or even quadrupling them again, and again, and then again.

    China reducing the *growth* in its coal use to only 3.7% may alter the emissions curve slightly, but it’ll still bend up, not even straighten out, let alone bend down. And that reduction is expected to be temporary.

    We need a hundred good news stories, and better ones than these, John, to counter the bad news.

  46. @John Quiggin

    “There is no such thing as baseload demand.”

    What are we going to do with the electricity generated by wind generators at 3 o’clock in the morning? Or are they going to be wasted much more than they are now?

  47. There are severe limits to the extent that demand shifting and storage can overcome irregular energy supply. I see from Origin Energy’s FAQ page the trial of time-of-use pricing in Victoria has been halted to protect the ‘vulnerable’. I presume that refers to the frail elderly not using heating or cooling at time the gas or electricity price is likely to be high.

    The subject of energy storage is complex suffice to say after 200 years of research lead acid batteries remain the cheapest option. To cope with a severe cold snap a city might need tens of gigawatt-hours of electrical energy storage. That is simply beyond the means of readily available technology and the power must be generated in real time. If not mainly coal fired electricity then what?

  48. Chris @ #2, There is such a thing as baseload supply, but not baseload demand. Baseload power plants don’t change production to meet changing demands. Cheap coal made baseload supply possible. The future will be a series of peaking plants such as biogas, biomass, geothermal, molten salt and other storage devices working around direct solar and wind power in conjunction with a smart grid.

  49. @Hermit

    These limits aren’t real. They reflect political mishandling of the introduction of meters, most notably the fact that they were combined with an increase in fixed charges, when correct pricing principles would yield low (or no) fixed charges, since distribution costs as well as generation costs are driven by peak demand.

    If we were moving from time-of-day to fixed tariffs, exactly the same concerns would be raised and with more justification. That is, low income households who managed their usage to minimise costs would rightly complain that this capacity was being taken away.

  50. JQ wrote:

    They reflect political mishandling of the introduction of meters

    Had personal contact with the inner workings of smart meter roll-outs in my state – it definitely looked that way to me – eg: the newspeak “Advanced Metering Infrastructure” (AMI) instead of “smart meter”.
    I suspect the utility of the devices will outlive the political fallout – eg: come the next long dry spell, we will have much better data about our water usage.

    The “melted granny” scenarios could have been mitigated by a successful home efficiency drive (eg: the failed federal insulation program). Political arse covering masquerading as empathy really gets my goat.

    On the whole grid/base load argument – I’m a believer in a having a widely distributed heterogeneous generation but some “central” capacity is required for a grid if for no other reason than to use as a timebase to keep everything in phase (oh, and to prevent all the home PV “island effect” circuits cutting in sporadically).
    I highly recommend a read of ‘What’s wrong with the electric grid?’ for some insight into what goes on in managing an electrical grid distributed over a large area.

  51. @Salient Green

    There is such a thing as baseload supply

    Indeed, and in that respect wind generation is the same as capital-intensive fuel-burning power stations. Average wind generation is independent of the time of day, as is the capacity of coal-burning power stations. So wind generation is going to have exactly the same problem as coal generation during off-peak times, i.e. its generating capacity will be more than necessary during off-peak times if its capacity is sufficient during peak times.

  52. @Chris O’Neill

    Certainly wind has the least satisfactory supply characteristics (intermittent and uncorrelated with demand), followed by coal and nuclear (constant and uncorrelated with demand). Solar PV follows load pretty well and could do even better, at some efficiency cost with western orientation, as discussed in the other thread. But gas is better still and hydro even better as a source you can turn on and off as needed.

    We managed to cope with the supply-demand mismatch of a coal-based system for a long time, and I’m sure we can do the same with a mixture of wind, solar, gas and hydro, which appear to be the likely winners over the next few decades.

  53. JQ – current nuclear technology poses some technical difficulties when it comes to load following but none the less French operators do load follow using current nuclear technology. Many proposed designs, specifically the LFTR and IFR, are absolutely superb load followers. LFTRs are virtually a natural load follower due to the strong negative temperature coefficient of reactivity. The more power you pull from them the more they want to make.

    What tends to make nuclear plants operate as a base load technology isn’t so much that it can’t load follow but rather the fact that fuel costs are approximately zero in the scheme of things so there is never an incentive to reduce output whilst other generators are available to do so. Nuclear power costs are essentially determined by the capital cost of the plant and the marginal energy cost is close to zero (up to the maximum capacity of the plant). When demand declines in a power grid you turn off power that is easy to do so (ie not coal) but also power with the highest marginal cost (ie not nuclear).

    Nuclear should not be dismissed as only good for base load.

    Nuclear power can be a highly flexible energy solution.

  54. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Load_following_power_plant#Pressurized_water_reactors

    In France, however, nuclear power plants use load following. French PWRs use “grey” control rods, in order to replace chemical shim, without introducing a large perturbation of the power distribution. These plants have the capability to make power changes between 30% and 100% of rated power, with a slope of 5% of rated power per minute. Their licensing permits them to respond very quickly to the grid requirements.

  55. To return to the post topic for a moment, the Danish Meteorological Institute sea ice extent record has fallen. DMI uses a 30% threshold instead of the more usual 15%.

  56. Also the June Northern Hemisphere snow anomaly was the lowest figure for June in the whole 45 year record, besting the previous record set in 2010 by 1 million square kilometres.

    The average retreat North over the last 27 years, since the mid-1970s, is 18 miles per year. Since the mid-2000s it is 38 miles. In this last dramatic year, at the height of the melt season, the snow has been melting away 71 miles further North than in any other previous year.

  57. All is not lost, Terje.

    The reality is that the world will in the future, as it has always in the past…….be Thermo Nuclear Powered.

    The sad reality is that the anti nuclear lobby will also be vindicated for their opposition, as this one, immensely inefficient, nuclear reactor will eventually blow up and destroy everything around it.

  58. @John Quiggin

    We managed to cope with the supply-demand mismatch of a coal-based system for a long time, and I’m sure we can do the same with a mixture of wind, solar, gas and hydro, which appear to be the likely winners over the next few decades.

    The point was, wind has the same supply-demand mismatch as a coal-based system with other problems thrown in as well. The big advantage of solar cells is they don’t produce power when no-one wants it. Wind will if it’s ever substantial. Gas and hydro solve the supply-demand mismatch problem. Wind makes it worse.

  59. Chris O’Neill wrote:

    Gas and hydro solve the supply-demand mismatch problem. Wind makes it worse.

    Given that the cost of running a turbine is planned maintenance every so often, why wouldn’t you run it as often as you can? There’s no fuel cost, ditto for solar.
    Pump some water up a hill, compress air, charge capacitors, create reactive power (see my link a few posts ago) or just boil your potatoes (ie: issue an alert that your spot price is now 10 cents less than everyone else…)

    The supply-demand mismatch can be dealt with by having diversity in location and type of energy production (I note a recent press release about a Victorian gas fuelled site with a 5 minute start up time). I’m all for gas and hydro where appropriate but if we can do it without the extra methane (for both) and CO2 (gas) it would be worth the effort.

  60. @Happy Heyoka

    Given that the cost of running a turbine is planned maintenance every so often, why wouldn’t you run it as often as you can?

    Assuming you’ve already sunk the cost into wind, but the issue was deciding how much to sink into wind in the first place. As the solar storage post points out, after solar cell installation plays out, the remaining demand will consist of a large peak in the evening for half of the year with relatively less demand the rest of the day, i.e. a very high peak to average ratio. Wind is very capital-inefficient at supplying this type of demand compared with hydro and gas which are by name and by nature, “peaking” generators. Perhaps there is a capital-efficient opportunity for wind to supply some of the minimum load that lasts all day long but that will, of course, make up only a small part of the generating capacity.

  61. @Chris O’Neill

    Perhaps there is a capital-efficient opportunity for wind to supply some of the minimum load that lasts all day long but that will, of course, make up only a small part of the generating capacity.

    The logical first step is to have an installed wind capacity equal to the minimum night-time demand. Though relatively small, this is still quite significant and most places are nowhere near this capacity yet.

  62. @Chris O’Neill

    The logical first step is to have an installed wind capacity equal to the minimum night-time demand. Though relatively small, this is still quite significant and most places are nowhere near this capacity yet.

    I’d be in favour of devising and rolling out low footprint storage solutions capable of being used over time at a cost reflective of the cost of the intermittent capacity. I’d build enough wind to meet maximum post peak capacity taking into account a plausible capacity credit.

  63. @Chris O’Neill

    Assuming you’ve already sunk the cost into wind, but the issue was deciding how much to sink into wind in the first place.

    Sorry Chris, I missed the context – someone was wrong elsewhere on the internet and I lost the thread.

    While I have seen “average annual wind speed” figures for various localities, I haven’t come across a decent source for “comparative instantaneous wind speed” for a whole state with an hour-by-hour timescale. Maybe capacity to meet night-time demand is a reasonable first milestone.

    I think Fran is right about storage being important, but “grid-scale” storage is hardly trivial – hydro is one proven technology but we’re all out of convenient places to expand on that – if you tried doing a “Three Gorges” in the river valley where I lived you’d end up with a bunch of politicians hanging from lamp posts.
    There was the giant compressed air storage scheme (which pretty much relied on having existing geological support). Exotica like Vanadium-Redox – well, I’m not holding my breath.

    Without coming over all “chicken little”, what worries me is that spending years pursuing the most cost-effective solutions is in itself a problem given the portents (Arctic and Antarctic ice, corn yields, wildfires). Rather than putting all our effort into a handful of sites using two or three technologies we must work on getting a diverse set of medium scale technologies implemented and accept the risk that some of them will prove to be less than perfect.

    I have my welding gear ready right here, what I’m looking for is someone to translate this into the language of the economically conservative.

  64. I haven’t come across a decent source for “comparative instantaneous wind speed”

    Of course, having just plucked that phrase out of my fundament, I Google it and there are two million hits… sigh.

  65. Happy H,

    Storage is an issue, but it is not necessarily as difficult as it is made out to be. Renewables require evaluation as as an integrated embedded energy medium rather than as an exterior appendage. By far the largest energy source in the medium term future will be the distributed energy production facilities that will be an essential feature of both domestic and commercial housing. As JQ has been at pains to point out energy consumption will over time adapt to the variability of solar delivery. Wind power and wave power will be very significant balancing contributors, as will biomass energy where it is commercially viable.

    Our GenIIPV system on its own has the potential to generate to supply between 50 and 75 percent of Australia’s to total electricity consumption within less than 30 years. At that point over 6 million buildings will be fitted with this of other (there have been several recently announced systems hedging in this direction though still wide of the mark) comparable systems. The minimum storage capacity for each of these users is expected to be 6 kilowatt hours capacity. So where 6 million distributed energy producers have 6 kilowatt hours of storage there will be a minimum national online storage capacity of 36 gigawatt hours. And that is before you consider vehicle storage batteries. Blue Gen systems appear to be gaining acceptance and these will also add very considerable “off peak” capacity.

    When you add up the ALL aspects of the renewables system as they will be 20 years from now energy storage shortfalls will be a minor issue easily coped with from the offset fuel costs. The real issue is what will the grid energy production system look like at that point in time. I would be expecting a collapse of most commercial operators and a return to state owned (in the public interest) grid energy production which will focus very much on system management, mass energy storage, and exotic energy production options.

  66. @Jack Strocchi

    Gratuitous abuse deleted (reply post also deleted)

    I apologise for taking the bait PrQ. I’ll bit my tongue if there is a next time. It had been a tough week but that’s no excuse.

  67. @Happy Heyoka

    I think Fran is right about storage being important, but “grid-scale” storage is hardly trivial

    I like the idea of using small scale pumped hydro combined with localised water treatment. If we had sewage/waste water pumped to combined district water treatment and catchment systems not only could we save energy transporting water, and make better use of existing water, but we could use surplus power from intermittent sources to pump water to perhaps 50 metres of head pressure and the local catchment vessel. We have near where I live a pumping station perhaps 1.6 km as the corw flies from large water tanks on a hill at probably at least that elevation.

    Taking surplus power to do that job would be very easy but something obviously we could elect not to do when power was in short supply. These mini-pumped storage systems could be the reserve power overnight, allowing both the coal fired and gas peaking stations to be closed/ramped down. Because we could make use of natural terrain, the engineering costs of doing this would be far lower than in most other locations near load centres.

    Another option might involve the V2G system. As more and more plug-in electric vehicles come on line both the vehicles and the battery swap infrastructure could become part of the grid storage system. There’s an obvious advantage from the POV of a battery owner in selling power during peak demand and buying it back during the off-peak, even if one makes allowance for the accelerated decline in the battery life of each cycle. One suspects that if this becomes a major source of redundant capacity manufacturers will begin focusing on how to build batteries capable of avoid deterioration through cycling.

    It also occurs to me that there is an untapped resource in the discarded lead-acid batteries of conventional vehicles. These are a not insignificant disposal problem but I do wonder at the feasibility of reconditioning these batteries for grid storage.

  68. Fran you need to look at the energy storage capacity of water. It is not a lot. Without looking I think that it is around 125 watt hours per cubic meter at 100 meters head. You need to have very large bodies of water to make pumped hydro useful. I don’t think that the tanks on Old Bathurst Road are of a suitable scale. Wentworth Falls lake would be a useful size but then it would be useless for other activities.

    For that scale of infrastructure (water storage tank size) the Redox battery makes more sense as a storage medium. At (originally 20) 40 watt hours per litre, a cubic meter (1000 litres) would store 40 kilowatt hours , or a 30 metre diameter by 10 metre high tank would store 90 megawatt hours times .75 (round trip efficiency). That is a useful amount of storage. That would make 12 kilowatt hours available to 6000 homes.

    That is if my info quick calcs are anywhere near correct.

  69. @BilB

    The figure I’m working with is 0.272kWh per Kl of water (1 M^3). I am assuming a round trip efficiency of about 80% (pipe diameter is a variable here). A 30m tank 15m in height elevated to 50 m head pressure would yield 1442.17kWh when fully discharged. Adjusting for 80% RTE that is 1153.74 kWh. Where the existing topography is suitable, the costs of these would be manageable. We already have places where reservoirs pump to neighbourhoods from elevated positions.

    Batteries have a toxicity and ideally, one doesn’t want to add toxics to the system.

  70. Yes that figure sounds familiar, about twice what I said. I knew it was in that territory, still not particularly wonderful. The Redox system has the advantage of not requiring elevation. in fact it best suits a recessed (submerged) location. The Redox liquid is mainly vanadium particles and sulphuric (?) acid so is not especially toxic, although any release is not acceptable.

    I’m afraid I still prefer the domestic storage solution which covers far more of the user’s needs. Last Friday’s storms, for instance, left us at home without power for several hours, as usual. Regional storage does not solve that sort of occurance, which is so far the most common power problem that our family has after the size of the power bill. So there is my work list. GenIIPV solves the power bill problem, with about 6 kilowatt of storage (at present $4200, but eventually $1200) solves both short term backup storage an external connection problems. Extended low solar periods are largely coped with by the fact that even in these times the system generates up to 30% of its full solar peak. And when all else goes wrong most of the GenIIPV features can be backed up with gas consumption. There is one more link missing, which I am sure we will be able to bridge in due course.

    So on the whole I don’t feel so stressed about the need for regional storage for GenIIPV users. And even for the broader system i think that system size will cope with most of the storage needs coupled with intelligent distribution which can trigger things like off peak water heating to absorb supply overloads.

    Summary. I am less concerned now about storage now than I was several years ago during all of those wasted arguments with anti solar energy alarmists like Peter L. Also if you Google around you will see that there are serious companies such as Siemens and The Switch providing significant industry standard mass energy storage solutions for wind power load leveling.

  71. I forgot to multiply by Pi in my calculation, Duh.

    So your Old Bathurst Road tank would as a Redox tank store 424 megawatt hours unless I’ve made yet another mistake. Alternatively to achieve the Redox tank size to store the 1442 kilowatt hours is just 36 cubic metres, or a tank 6 x 6 x 1 metre high. There is a massive difference in the energy density there.

  72. So just working through the implications of the above if we had across the Sydney conurbation — (i.e the area bounded by Newcastle/Hunter to the north, Wollongong in the South and Lithgow in the West) you could have in pumped storage alone about 173MWh taken from surplus generation of about 216MWh.

    It’s hard to find out how much wind/PV we have in NSW but across the country in 2010 about 5400 MwH in solar PV and Wind were consumed. Assuming 30% of that was in NSW the surplus generation should be a lot lkess than 216 MWh.

  73. @BilB

    I think there should be a mix of options but the pumped storage option colocated with local reservoirs sounds appealing as part of the mix precisely because at the margins it wouldn’t require a lot of new infrastructure. We have to store (and treat) and pump water anyway and we can decide when it is convenient in demand terms to do that. Processing water locally has energy advantages.

    If we had much more high density housing we could have even more locally based energy storage since the scope for complexes to run large scale solar on the rooves and store the power in batteries and so forth would be greater than would be the case for individuals. Parking spaces could facilitate V2G connectivity and draw down power directly from their own panels.

  74. Fran, you have to take into consideration that to recover the potential energy from you elevated water tank, you need to have a reservoir tank for the water to flow freely into at the bottom. You cannot let the water drain slowly back through the elevation pump and somehow recover the energy, that is not how they work. Furthermore the water at the bottom has no pressure. In our area there is enough water in the Nepean river for low volume pumped storage but the head tank would only be useful for that purpose. It obviously could not be used for drinking water. The Castlereagh Rise might have enough elevation to do something useful in that way.

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